Online student collaboration turns to 3D, avatars

Wanting to create a collaborative studio experience online, an architecture school has turned to a virtual 3D environment populated by avatars.

avatar-3D-onlineWhen Cheap Trick first belted out “Are you lonely tonight,” it’s safe to say the band didn’t have distance learning in mind. Yet the line accurately sums up the most persistent problem plaguing online education since its inception: a sense of isolation among students.

While sophisticated analytics, webcams, chat tools, and discussion forums have gone a long way toward resolving the issue, the online experience is still not optimal for disciplines that rely heavily on collaboration. Programs in design, healthcare, and executive business management, for example, all utilize approaches that place tremendous emphasis on teamwork.

In an effort to address this need, the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Penn State decided to build a major component of its new Master of Professional Studies degree in Geodesign around an innovative 3D virtual studio populated by avatars.

“The first half of the degree is more traditional online delivery of the courses—community chat rooms and all the different ways of connecting with people,” explained Kelleann Foster, the school’s director. “For the second half, though, we wanted to offer actual studio courses in a studio setting, giving students a chance to interact in a way that would mimic—and hopefully enhance—what they would experience in a traditional design studio.”

To help deliver this experience, the school selected AvayaLive Engage (formerly web.alive), a cloud-based virtual environment that requires participants to download only a browser plug-in. Students and faculty—each represented by a customizable avatar—move through the space using the same commands typically used in gaming.

“We looked at a lot of different approaches,” recalled Foster. “We decided that this avatar-based environment—not gaming but professional avatars—provided a lot of advantages. One of the clearest advantages is that you feel as if you’re meeting in a space. You can tell someone, ‘I like the idea that’s on the wall behind you,’ and she knows to turn her avatar around. It allows for interaction in a way that we couldn’t find in another online avenue.”

(Next page: How to use the avatar-based approach effectively and painlessly)

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